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Promoting Pius XII


Ten years ago, the Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission, established to investigate Pope Pius XII’s response to the Holocaust, met for the first time to discuss its future work. I was the only Israeli historian among the six scholars (three Catholics and three Jews) designated by the Vatican and leading Jewish organizations to study this hotly contested issue.

A little under two years later, the project was abandoned as a result of the Holy See’s unwillingness to release materials from its own archives that could help clarify issues our team of scholars raised in our provisional report. Already at that time there were moves afoot to place Pius XII on the fast track to sainthood, but they were probably slowed down by Israeli and Jewish protests and a desire by Church authorities to prevent a serious rupture in Catholic-Jewish relations.

At issue was the silence of Pius XII during the Holocaust and his indirect complicity in the Nazi mass murder of Jews. These allegations had prompted the Vatican to publish eleven volumes of its own documents (edited by four trusted Jesuit scholars), most of them appearing in the 1970s. It was these documents in Italian, German, French, Latin and English that we were originally asked to review. The million or so unpublished documents from the pontificate of Pius XII (1939-1958) will only be available in about four years.

It is in this context that we need to see the recent decree on the “heroic virtues” of Pius XII, just signed by Pope Benedict XVI. Most Jews have interpreted this act as yet another signal that the Vatican is determined to beatify the controversial wartime pope – regardless of what the historical evidence may indicate.

The sharp response of Jewish leaders to Benedict’s decree prompted the Vatican’s Press Office director, Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., to release a conciliatory note distinguishing between the historical judgment of Pius XII’s actions (still an open question) and the saintly Christian life he apparently led. In particular, Father Lombardi was concerned to disclaim any notion that this decree was “a hostile act towards the Jewish people” or an obstacle to Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

Nevertheless, the decree on Pius XII raises concern not only about the continuing drive to beatify the wartime pontiff but also about the present pope and the state of relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.

I personally have never seen Pius XII either as “Hitler’s Pope” (the theory of British historian John Cornwell, a “lapsed” Catholic), or as the “Righteous Gentile” evoked by Rabbi David Dallin. My own provisional conclusion drawn from the study of thousands of documents is that the mass murder of Jews was fairly low on his list of priorities. Of course, much the same could be said of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, but they did not claim to be the “Vicar of Christ” or to represent the Christian conscience.

Pius XII strikes me as a polished diplomat far more worried about the Allied bombing of Rome than about the thousand Roman Jews who were being deported by the Germans to their deaths in Auschwitz, virtually under the windows of the Holy See. True, other Roman Jews were discreetly given sanctuary in ecclesiastical establishments in and around Rome after October 1943, but it remains unclear if this was the result of a direct papal instruction.

In some instances we know Pius XII did try to intervene against Nazi or racist anti-Semitic legislation, but in general this was almost always on behalf of baptized Jews since they were protected by the Church as Catholics. Pius’s rare references to the mass murder of Jews were invariably veiled and very abstract, as if he found it difficult to utter the word itself.

Was it fear of further German reprisals? A latent anti-Semitism? Was it his visceral anti-Communism that led him to hope for a Nazi victory in the East? Or perhaps the desire to spare German Catholics a conflict of conscience between their loyalty to Hitler, the fatherland, or their Church? Whatever the reasons, this was hardly heroic conduct.

So why has Benedict XVI chosen to take this step now? My own inclination is to think the present pope regards Pius XII as a soulmate, both theologically and politically. He shares with the wartime pontiff an authoritarian centralist world-view and a deep distrust of liberalism, modernity, and the ravages of moral relativism. He was 31 years old when Pius XII died in 1958, and already then regarded him as a venerated role model.

Moreover, the German-born Joseph Ratzinger (today Benedict XVI) certainly knew Pius XII was a passionate Germanophile, surrounded by German aides during and after the war, fluent in the German language, and a great admirer of the German Catholic Church. Not only that, but Ratzinger probably knows Pius XII personally intervened after 1945 to commute the sentences of convicted German war criminals.

In this context it is profoundly unsettling to think Benedict XVI and his entourage can identify so completely with Pius XII as a man of “heroic virtue.” The present pope no doubt deplores anti-Semitism, though his statements on the subject have been noticeably less robust than those of his predecessor.

At Yad Vashem last summer he expressed no personal regret as a German for the unspeakable horrors of the Shoah. And earlier this year he showed remarkably poor judgment in reinstating an unrepentant Holocaust-denying British bishop into the mainstream Catholic Church, an action he only retracted after worldwide Jewish and Catholic protests.

These mistakes appear to follow a pattern and may even indicate a regression from the real progress in Catholic-Jewish relations under Benedict’s predecessor. One can only hope they are not irreversible since the stakes are high and no sane person can be interested in undermining the bridges across the abyss that have been so painstakingly constructed.

About the Author: Robert S. Wistrich is Neuberger professor of European and Jewish history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. This essay was adapted from his new book, “From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel” (University of Nebraska Press).


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